Summer adventures at the University of Tokyo

One of the many perks of being an undergraduate student is the looooong summer break that we get between the May exams (lectures end in early April, how cool is that?!) and the start of a new semester in mid-September. Now, I don’t know about other countries, but French school kids (only) get two months off, which is very little compared to the half-year-summer-holiday monster that UK university students take for granted. This makes summer a great time of the year for students to get work or research experience and discover what type of job they would like to get after graduation. There are many opportunities available, and here’s one I recommend completely, and that I would love to get to do again by travelling back in time: the UTSIP program.

UTSIP stands for the University of Tokyo Summer Internship Program. It is a six-week program for undergraduate students in their first, second, or third year of university, to participate in research and discover aspects of the Japanese culture.

To apply, you need to submit a few documents, including a CV and a recommendation letter. I asked my personal tutor (a University of Edinburgh lecturer that advises you throughout your degree) to write that letter for me – in the middle of the Christmas holidays, woops (the application deadline was on the 4th of January last year, it is on the 31st of January this year – so apply!). I wrapped up my application, and sent off everything to Japan. Sending an email across the world was quite an adventure in itself!

After two months, I received an email – I’d gotten in! On the 1st of June, I was in a plane flying high above Siberia, on the way to Haneda Airport, in Tokyo. Landing in Tokyo is in itself incredible – you cross Japan from West to East, and fly above Tokyo Bay, before landing on a runway that starts where the sea ends… And the strong sun and heat that were waiting for me outside of the airport were amazing, after having spent the winter (I don’t know what else to call the period that starts in mid-September and ends in April) in Edinburgh!

The internship is based in Kashiwa, which is a very recent and modern campus 45 minutes away of Tokyo by train.

The UTSIP interns come from all the corners of the world: last year, there were students from Japan, South Korea, China, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Nepal, India, Mexico, the US, Canada, Australia, Lithuania, and Moldova…. and four of us studied in Scotland – in Aberdeen, St Andrews, and Edinburgh (we were two representatives of the School of GeoSciences!). It was a great experience to discover Japan with friends from so many different countries, who all had a unique point of view on our experiences. We had the opportunity to attend daily Japanese classes, try out Japanese recipes (takoyaki!), go to a kabuki play…. Many great activities were organised so that the interns would discover Tokyo and aspects of the Japanese culture.

During the weekends, I got to go to many places around Tokyo with my new friends: I went up Mount Tsukuba (a mountain on the list of the 100 best hikes of Japan – it was very hot on that day, and it was quite a painful hike, but the view was worth it), I took a cable car to explore the centuries-old sacred mountain of Nokogiri, I spent a day on the island of Enoshima exploring caves and a botanical garden…

Back to work: my internship project was based on determining the extent of saltwater intrusion in the coastal aquifer of the volcanic island of Niijima. Niijima is a beautiful island. It is famous for its white sand, which contains some black magnetite grains that stick to magnets. I will never forget its huge colourful insects – I’m not a big fan of creepy crawlies so it was quite daunting for me, but the amazing landscape and exotic trees made up for the insect scares.

I got to go there with members of the Geosphere laboratory of the University of Tokyo during one week. We slept in a traditional Japanese house on tatamis and ate fresh seafood and rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Although it rained quite a bit (June is the rainy season in Japan), we managed to conduct Vertical Electrical Sounding (VES) surveys across different survey lines on a beach and inland (so. many. mosquitoes. and caterpillars.). VES surveys give you the resistivity of different geological layers (you can differentiate sedimentary rocks, igneous rocks, but also freshwater and saltwater aquifers) beneath your feet. We wanted to find out at what depth the water table could be found, and at what depth the water was salty (a standard “saline water” threshold is 10 g/kg (seawater has an average salinity of 35 g/kg)) due to the ocean water intrusion into the subsurface (hint – it has to do with density contrasts and non-steady state conditions).

When we went back to Kashiwa, I spent three weeks analysing the data, and running a model that replicated Nijima’s aquifer through time: we know that the island was formed during a volcanic eruption in 886AD (Niijima literally means “new island”), and since then rainfall has been flushing away the saltwater, and replacing it with drinkable freshwater. It turns out that the freshwater might have completely replaced the saltwater after about 100 years – if our assumptions are reasonable. At the end of the UTSIP program, the interns have to present their projects and results, so I prepared slides comparing the results from our field measurements, from simple mathematical solutions (using equations to solve for the position of the water table and of the freshwater-saltwater interface), and from a complex numerical model, which ran for a few days on a big computer – some hydrogeological models can run for far, far longer!

My project fit into a wider-scope PhD project about the impact of a possible future tsunami on the quality of the water in the aquifer (a tsunami would cause seawater to enter the ground and contaminate the island’s aquifer, which is the population’s only source of freshwater). The PhD project notably aims to identify sustainable water extraction locations and rates. It was amazing to get a sneak-peak into the life of a graduate student, and to conduct my own little project, on a topic that I knew very little about beforehand (Environmental Geoscience students learn more about hydrogeology and near-surface geophysics in 3rd year, but I had just completed my second year when I went to Japan).

My lab mates were all extraordinarily kind, and organised welcoming and goodbye (☹) parties for me. They made me try weird Japanese sweets (kidney beans inside blue jelly). In exchange, I showed them pictures of Edinburgh, and they really liked Arthur’s Seat – Japan might be a volcanic island, but Scotland has many volcanoes too!

Going abroad for a research experience was an amazing opportunity, and I really recommend current students at the School of GeoSciences to look for internship options (there is a list of internship programs available on MyEd for current students). To prospective students: coming to study in Edinburgh is an amazing springboard to go abroad and study the Earth from any corner of the globe! I certainly would not have imagined a few years ago that I would go to Japan to become a “Tōdai Gakusei” (University of Tokyo student) for a few weeks, learn modelling techniques, put electrodes in the white sand of Niijima, and spend my weekends discovering Japan’s treasures.

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